Yumi Heo, Dearest Friend, Kindest Soul

By Charise Harper and Lenore Look

With heavy hearts we share the news that our dearest friend and beloved colleague,Yumi Heo, mother to Auden and Sara Jane, wife to Steven Dana, daughter and granddaughter, sister to Yun and Yunsoo, award-winning author and illustrator, whose picture books brought to colorful life Korean and Scottish folktales, as well as stories of contemporary Asian and Asian-American families, passed away on November 5, 2016, in White Plains, NY, after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 51.

Charise: I remember our first hello. I don’t always remember hellos, but ours was important. It was the first time I thought, “I’m going to like it here.” I was new to New York and eager to find like-minded creative friends. It wasn’t easy, I was illustrating a book and looking after two small children – free time was scarce. One day while walking in Rye, New York, something in a store window caught my eye. As I got closer, I realized the entire display was made up of books by Yumi Heo – one of my favorite illustrators. I’m not generally brave, but I summoned up the courage, marched into the store and asked, “Why do you have so many of Yumi Heo’s books in the window?” The man behind the counter said, “Yumi Heo is my wife.” We talked for a while, and I told him I made books too. Suddenly he picked up the phone. “I’m going to call Yumi and tell her you’re here.” Now I was worried, there was no way Yumi Heo was going to know who I was. Well, she did and after that first hello, we became friends. I am grateful for that day. Grateful that my family got to know Yumi and Steven and their children. We have shared many holidays and Thanksgivings together. We have supported each other’s creative adventures and shared dreams for the future. Yumi always inspired me. She was fearless in her art, incredibly creative, sweet, gentle, loyal, determined and funny, and always- all these things with a smile. My children adored her. I feel lucky to have known her. It’s not easy to say good-bye.

Lenore: Yumi illustrated three of my picture books, which garnered many starred reviews and awards, including two Charlotte Zolotow Honor Awards and ALA Notable Books. But more importantly, she became one of my dearest, sweetest friends. She was very good at friendship maintenance, and she’d often pick up the phone just to ask how I was doing. And up until a year ago, we were meeting every few months at the ice rink in Hackensack, NJ, where Sara Jane was training, to chat and plan new books together. We first met through my editor, Anne Schwartz, who paired us together for HENRY’S FIRST-MOON BIRTHDAY and UNCLE PETER’S AMAZING CHINESE WEDDING. After that, we did POLKA-DOT PENGUIN POTTERY, which is autobiographical – everything that happens in that book actually happened during the day I spent in her pottery studio, where she had invited me to “try something new” to help dispel my writer’s block. It worked! Our day together became our next book. Charise was there too – and appears as a store, “Charise’s Cookie Caper” – and her children became characters – Ivy and Luther (their real names). Yumi is herself in the work – and she really is like that – happy, fun, playing wonderful music, and busy, busy – doing a thousand things at once, helping everyone all the time. She also loved introducing her friends to each other – I think she loved seeing people she enjoyed, enjoy one another.

The gang, the day Yumi introduced me to Charise Harper, author and illustrator of the popular FASHION KITTY series, in 2007. img_0034L-R: Charise Harper, Yumi Heo, Sara Jane, Auden.

Born in the rural village of Kang Wang Do, Wangju, Korea, Yumi first came to the United States in 1989, as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. There she met Steven Dana, a fellow student, who became her husband.

“As a child,” Steven said, “her mother had a rule for her.  Every family outing or picnic that the family went on, Yumi had to bring crayons and paper with her.”

Using collage, pencil and oil, Yumi’s work is characterized by its strong use of color and cut-outs, turning text into frantic activity that sings with a child’s sense of wonder and joie de vivre. Insects, bizarre little creatures, strangely shaped inanimate objects, random pencil marks, scribbles, patterns, and other-worldly flowers often float dream-like in the background of the main action, creating a narration of their own. Publishers Weekly has praised her “Matisse-like art” as a combination of the Cheshire cat, Lane Smith, Maira Kalman, “with a touch of Marc Chagall.” Her signature style was offbeat, playful and childlike, as though rendered by the child or animal character within the book, with “details that accentuate . . . emotions, and . . . traditions.”

“Yumi was one of the gentlest, most dedicated and creative people I’ve had the joy to work with,” says Anne Schwartz, at Schwartz and Wade Books. “Her art was quirky; it was playful; it was exciting; it was deeply original. Her vision was unlike anyone else’s, and working with her was inspiring for me. I have a hard time believing that she is gone; I will really miss her.”

Yumi illustrated SO SAY THE LITTLE MONKEYS, by Nancy Van Laan, SMILE, LILY, by Candace Fleming, and THE LONELY LIONESS AND THE OSTRICH CHICKS, by Verna Aardema, a NY Times Best Illustrated book, with Schwartz.

The happy, frenetic activity of her pages can be used to describe the pace at which she worked, producing 35 books over a 22-year career that began with the publication of THE RABBIT’S JUDGMENT, written by Suzanne Crowder Han in 1994, to her final book, SOMETIMES I AM BOMBALOO, written by Rachel Vail, released in May 2016, when Yumi had already devoted herself full-time, to fighting the relapse of her cancer. Additionally, she had also created public art for the Queens #7 NYC subway line, and short animations for Nick Jr. In 2005, she founded her pottery studio, Polka-dot Penguin Pottery in Rye, NY, which became a creative outlet for children throughout Westchester County and Connecticut.

Yumi’s own exuberant personality was reflected in her sunny, dining room studio, filled with books and quirky little stuffed animals that she had made by hand. It felt like a sacred place of wild invention and even wilder dreams, especially in the windowless little corner where she sat at her drafting table. This is the photo I took of her in her studio in 2008, when I saw it for the first time, and that’s where she’ll always be for me. img_0287

We are devastated by the loss of our beautiful and cherished friend. There is no tribute adequate enough for a life that brought as much kindness and joy to others as hers did. But we offer two haikus, Charise’s first, followed by mine:

 

white page perfect line

worn, wispy, soft, bold, fresh

eye to heart to soul

 

Yumi, is that you?

Tea wisps, frog shoes, tiger pipes

Page after page, love.

 

A private family service will be held in Korea.

Steven has set up a Yumi Heo Memorial Fund to help their family through this difficult time. Any amount is deeply appreciated. If you would like to make a donation, please go to: gofundme.com/krlds

 

 

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Debbie Alvarez, Human Being Extraordinaire

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My good friend, Debbie Alvarez, Mother to Declan, Wife to Doug, Sister to Rachel, Daughter and Granddaughter, Avocate of children’s authors and illustrators, Fierce Reader of books, Enlightened Keeper of Literature, Adventurous Traveller, Inspiring Leader, Brave Warrior, Human Being Extraordinaire, passed away this week.

I am heartbroken.

The above photo shows Debbie, just minutes after we first met, when she welcomed me to the Bradbury School library in Hong Kong, for Author’s Day in 2012.

The next year, she and her family joined me at Shaolin Temple in China for a week of Kung fu lessons.

Earlier this year, she invited me to stay with her while I was on book tour in Hong Kong.

We had many heart-to-heart talks, the kind you have with a BFF you grew up with. Here we are during our final dinner together, with another wonderful librarian friend that she introduced me to, Tanja Galetti, in the middle. (Photo will be added at a later time.)

We kept in touch through email and by following one another’s blogs and social media posts.

We said we would make plans to have adventures together in the U.S. after they moved back to Oregon.

I promised that I would come see her at Christmas, when I would be visiting my mom in Seattle.

We settled on December 26. In her last email to me, on 12/15/15, she wrote, “So excited about you coming…Many hugs, much love, Debbie.”

The next day, she posted an alarming update on her blog, Life’s Journey, Interrupted, in which she has documented her battle with cancer. For more than two years, she gave readers an unflinching look at what it’s like to fight for her life. The harder the blow, the more courageous she became. She faced  the storm and hollered so fiercely that it scared the bejesus out of her tumors. But she never became a full-time patient. She charged full-speed ahead as a mom, librarian, reading advocate, writer, adventurer, and a nurturer of enduring friendships. It was an uncommon bravery, the likes of which I have never seen. I believed in a miracle for her — that she would triumph. She had to. Her Son With the Most Tender Heart will have a mother who beat the odds to see him marry and to hold his children, just because she said so. But now, she said she  might have pneumonia.

Pneumonia. It’s not a blow, like chemotherapy. Or a feeding tube. Or even a new tumor. It is Death’s threshold itself. Anyone who’s had it knows. I’ve stared into the airless abyss myself, as a child with asthma. It fills your lungs with liquid, just like that.

The next thing I knew, she was gone.

But she was SO alive, that even today, she managed to post to her blog, The Styling Librarian, which I’ve re-blogged here.

I am sad beyond words. I will not be saying hello to her again, but I will be traveling to Portland after Christmas, to say goodbye.

To paraphrase Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good librarian. Debbie was both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now on Instagram!

Check out my un-bloogie globby — more pics, less text! Click on the photo icon in the right-hand column, it will take you to my Instagram account. My handle is lenore_look, in case the link doesn’t work.

Follow me on Instagram for another chance to win a signed copy of the newest Alvin Ho book (see below). Winners will be announced soon!

BRUSH OF THE GODS in Chinese!

IMG_1768I’m SO excited to see my book in its Chinese language version!

And in traditional characters to boot! Hooray!

The publisher, Global Kids Books, is based in Taiwan, where traditional, or “complex” characters are used. Simplified characters (fewer strokes and sometimes bearing no resemblance to the traditional characters) are used in Mainland China and Singapore.

When I learned my Chinese at Princeton, my professors used traditional characters exclusively. My current Chinese school in NYC’s Chinatown uses simplified. I favor traditional characters and still use it for all my assignments. It’s the only way I’ll be able to read the Chinese classics some day.

Anyway, here’s a look at some of the beautiful inside pages! IMG_1769IMG_1770IMG_1771If you’re learning Chinese, and would like to order a copy, go to the Global Kids Books website at  www.gkids.com.tw, or email them at gkids@cwgv.com.tw.

Enjoy!

 

Inspiration Uptown & Downtown

Dear Reader,

I had the most amazing day yesterday. I went to the New York Historical Society with a bunch of Princetonians to see the special exhibit on the history of Chinese Americans.IMG_0764It is the first major exhibit of Chinese American history at a mainstream museum, according to Princeton Professor Beth Lew-Williams, who had brought students from her Asian American history class for a look. Alumni, organized by the amazing Mo Chen ’80, joined them. IMG_0474I write about Chinese American families, so I knew I would find inspiration and details here for my work.

The exhibit opens with artifacts from the first American ship, Empress of China, that sailed to Canton in search of a new trading partner, in 1784, when our country was brand-new: IMG_0476Did you know that George Washington ordered his china from China?

Chinese began coming to the U.S. in the 1840s to join the gold rush in California, followed by work on building the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese were barred from becoming U.S. citizens, but in Thomas Nast’s cartoon in Harper’s Weekly, 1869, a Chinese family is included at the national thanksgiving table:IMG_0492Here are some Chinese pioneers from the bad old days:IMG_0499Here’s the dude who may have been the first to use “Chinese American” as an assertion of identity, in his newspaper published in New York in 1883, a year after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. He meant it as a challenge.IMG_0699His name was Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898). He spoke fluent English, had a sharp tongue, a sense of humor, and no fear of bullies. He challenged an anti-Chinese activist to duel to the death, using his choice of weapon: “chopsticks, Irish potatoes or Krupp Guns.”

Did you know that the U.S. passed a LOT of anti-Chinese laws? Here are the walls enumerating them:IMG_0508The centerpiece of the exhibit is a re-creation of the barracks at Angel Island, the immigration station where Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated before entry into the U.S. or deportation, from 1910-1940:IMG_0718IMG_0744Detainees left many sad poems on the walls at Angel Island, here is one:IMG_0738I’ve been to Angel Island. While this exhibit conveys some of the scariness of the interrogation room, and the hardships endured, it conveys none of the discomfort of the surroundings. The exhibit feels cozy and womb-like, while the actual building was barren, filthy, drafty and very likely unheated. Actually, the re-created rooms are quite beautiful, like cabins at an expensive sleep-away camp, not the ugly holding pen that it was.

The exhibits ends with portraits of prominent Chinese American New Yorkers, among them, my friend-that-I’ve-never-met-except-in-cyberspace, the Wall Street Journal dude, Jeff Yang: IMG_0754Hey Jeff! Congrats to your son for being the star of the new TV series, Fresh Off the Boat!!!! What a hard-working and adorable kid!!! Woohoo!!!!

After that, we all got into this mega stretch limo:IMG_0759Whoa baby! When you’re an author, you don’t get a ride like this very often.

The lap of luxury:IMG_0762Off we went to our Chinese banquet in Chinatown.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of our feast because I was too busy eating. One thing I learned at Princeton: When you eat with Tigers, SNARF as fast as you can, or starve. I kid you not.

The other thing I learned at Princeton: After you eat, take something for the road.

So after our banquet, we headed straight over to Fai Da, my favorite bakery: IMG_0765Marissa, Nick and George were just getting started. You should have seen all the goodies they got! Tigers need a lot of tiger food for the long, hungry ride back to campus.

Then over to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for one more treat:IMG_0766By then it was snowing hard, making our afternoon together look like a magical world inside a snow globe.

And it was.

Thank you, Mo, for organizing the trip, and thank you,Tigers, for being utterly inspiring! You guys ROCK!!!

 

 

 

Dear Dad

Dear Reader,

The time has come to tell you of something very sad.

My dear father died two weeks ago.

His death was sudden and unexpected. He had just finished making dinner, complained of a headache to my mom, and within five minutes, lost consciousness forever. He had suffered a bleeding stroke, which is like a lightning strike in the brain. He was 83.

My family and I are still in shock. Lightning strikes in the brain don’t give any warning. My dad was active and vibrant and in good health. I had just spoken to him by phone a few days before.  His oldest friend who came by his hospital bed (he was on life support until my daughters and I could fly across the country to say our goodbyes), said that my dad had just visited him the day before, and had brought over Asian pears from his garden.

My dad was like that. He always had a couple of fruit trees, tended them carefully year-round, and loved giving away the bounty. When I was little, he couldn’t wait for August when he could finally tell people to bring over their grocery bags to fill with plums. He’d even made a fruit picker by tying a clothes hanger to the end of a long bamboo rod to hook the “best sun-ripened” ones from the top of the tree. He really loved standing in the shade of that tree and looking up into its heavy, summer darkness. I know this because I was perched on the little wooden platform halfway up the tree, looking down. I saw my dad’s face open with wonder, bewilderment and absolute disbelief at his good luck. Year after year.

Here is my dad in his recent garden:dadingardenSee what I mean about his ability to marvel?

With my mom on a recent trip to China.dadnmominchinaMy dad had taken me to his ancestral village in China, in 1998. You can read an excerpt from an essay that I wrote about the trip here, or you can find it in its entirety in Best American Essays 2001 (Houghton-Mifflin). liondadMy dad was the very end of the lion’s tail in the Chinese New Year lion dance in Seattle’s Chinatown in the 1950s.

When he wasn’t kung-fuing down King Street, he could make today’s A&F male models look like tufted sofas:modeldadAnd wasn’t he adorable standing in front of a jukebox?jikeboxdadFeeding the ducks in Lake Washington was a life-long activity, but here, it looks like he was actually dipping his BARE FEET in the water. Something I’d never seen him do!duckydad

My parents, shortly after they were married in Hong Kong, 1960:dadnmom1960

My dad hanging out with me and my brother:youngdad

My dad at work:chefdad2

My dad at play:chessdadMy dad doing tai chi:taichidadMy dad ALWAYS bought Chevrolets. The only time he bought a different make of car, a Mercury, it was a complete and utter LEMON. Here he is with his latest Chevy. Note the super-duper hiking boots! chessdad 1And the pen in his breast pocket. He was never without a pen, or his watch.

Here is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral:

My dad was a very modest man and would likely consider a eulogy to be unnecessary and a form of bragging. So please allow me to address him in a personal letter:

Dear Dad,

When I was little, I had no idea what a brave man you were.

When you left your little village in southern China in 1949, you were 19. You had 100 Hong Kong dollars distributed in small sums among the pockets in your clothes and tucked into your socks. Later, bandits held up your bus and demanded all your money, and you pulled out ten dollars from a pocket and said that it was all you had. They believed you. You carried a drawstring bag that contained two extra shirts. It was all you owned. Your mother had not even packed you a lunch because, as you remembered it, “there was nothing left to eat.”

 I loved your stories of survival as a little boy during the Second World War, when Japanese soldiers occupied your village. Your father and your yehyeh were living in Seattle. You were only seven. Every morning you and your mom and gningnin and younger brother would escape to the caves in the mountains. Every night you would come home after the soldiers had returned to their camp. They would take your chickens and your rice. But they couldn’t take your sense of adventure as you outsmarted the enemy troops. Your lives were in great peril, and your sense of wonder at the enemy planes that flew overhead must have driven your mother mad.

You not only survived enemy soldiers, but you also survived floods. When the Pearl River Delta flooded every spring, you were ready. You and your brothers took down the wooden doors of your house and used them as rafts. You would paddle around using your hands. Floods were such GREAT FUN, the way you told it. It never occurred to me that it was a dangerous event until I asked you a few years ago, “what was GninGnin and Lo Bak doing while you were paddling around?” You looked at me as though it should be obvious, and said, “They were saving the chickens and rice, of course, and screaming their heads off!”

As a young man in Seattle during the 1950s, you were brave to take a job as a dishwasher making $2 a day. You put yourself through school at Edison Technical College. You found a better job as a waiter. Then you bravely returned to Hong Kong in 1960 to marry my mom.

Marriage takes a lot of courage, but fatherhood takes even more. You became a dad three times during the 1960s. I don’t know what you were expecting, Dad, but ABCs are horrible children. We are not the nice respectful children that are born in China. We wear our shoes in the house. We speak English fast and Chinese slow, if at all. Our chopsticks don’t work. And our homework machines are not as good as the ones made in China. And did anyone ever tell you that when ABCs become teenagers all hell breaks lose?

Well, you braved it all, Dad. You screamed at us when we were bad, and you took us out for McDonald’s hamburgers when we were good. But whether we were good or bad, you went to work. You worked at Boeing as a mechanic until you got laid off in the 1970s. Then you worked as a cook in many different Chinese restaurants. You worked long hours. You worked swing-shifts. You stood at a hot stove all night long. I know you did this so that you could heat our home and feed us red meat, two things that you wouldn’t have had to do if we were living in the village. And eventually you did it to send me to college.

Thank you, Dad, for sending me to Princeton. It changed my life. You were very brave to let me go so far away.

You were very brave to try church. It is very different from anything you had ever known. You stayed away for many years while my friends picked me up Sunday mornings. You thought it was some strange club that required lots of money, which you didn’t have. It wasn’t until I had graduated from college that you gave it a try. Thank you for waiting, Dad, and for not giving away my tuition! Now I see that it has brought you many friends.

Thank you, Dad, for taking care of mom. She’s loved depending on you because you’re the type of man who is strong and brave and steadfast. She could depend on you no matter what. When mom faced some health challenges in recent years, you took her to every doctor’s appointment. You were the last person she saw going into surgery and the first person she saw when she came out. You were amazing, Dad. You really were. You had your own health issues, but I never heard about them until afterwards when you would say, “oh, BTW, i just got a stent put in,” as though you had just had your shoes repaired!

Thank you, Dad, for living so bravely and with a wealth of humor and grace. You always had a child’s sense of wonder, a tall tale to tell, or an astonishment to share. You laughed and you made us laugh. And the harder we laughed, the more embellishment you would give your stories.

While you made us laugh, nothing made you laugh more than being a grandpa. Thank you, Dad, for being a GREAT gunggung to Charity and Madison. You’ve given them so many wonderful memories of playing Chinese chess with you, going to Coulon Park, playing in the sand, getting clams from Ivars and you buying them anything that they even glanced at in the gift shops.

Thank you, Dad, also for taking me and the girls to many places in China, including your village, where you took down those doors when you were their age. They will never forget it.

None of us will ever forget you, Dad. You are a truly kind soul who gave SO much to everyone who came across your path. You lived a good life. You fought the good fight. You were brave and loyal and true. And now that I am still little, but old, I know just how lucky I am to be your daughter. Thank you, Dad, thank you for everything.

Your loving daughter,

LenorekeepingupwithdadKeeping up with my dad, November 1966.

Wah Neng Look, 1930-2014, my dad, my inspiration. 

My Lucky Day!

SANTA MARIA, CA — When I got to my mini rocket in Los Angeles this morning to blast off to Santa Maria near the Vandenberg Air Force Base . . . IMG_9239I nearly tripped a gentleman with a cane. Bad me. He’s at the center of the photograph above.

Later, I noticed that his shirt was embroidered with the NASA globe insignia. So I had to ask — “Are you going to the launch?” When you’re an author it’s usually a good idea to talk to strangers. You could learn something.

He turned out to be James O. Norman, Director, Launch Services. He’s the guy in charge of the rocket!!! It was my lucky day! Normally, Mr. Norman works at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. But today, since he’s the BOSS of the team of scientists working on the Delta II rocket, he had come to oversee the pre-launch testing (not open to the media). Oh, I should have told him I was a member of the top-secret military unit responsible for the new paint job, or something like that, when he asked what OCO-2 unit I work in. He thought I was a rocket scientist! And so did the car rental guys!

I digress.

Anyway, this is what I learned from Mr. Norman: when the Delta II blasts off, it goes from zero to Mach22 in eight minutes. That’s 22 times faster than the speed of sound!!! The speed of sound is 761.207051 miles per hour. So the Delta II goes from 0 to 16,746.5551 miles per hour in eight minutes.

And I thought that race car I drove in Tucson was badass.

I have NO CONCEPT of this power. None.

But in about 28 hours, I will find out.

For those of you who want to know everything-you-need-to-know about the OCO-2-before I take the tour tomorrow, here’s the pre-launch press briefing that they gave us via an Internet live-feed today:

Enjoy!